Women Subjugation In The Gothic Fictions Of Angela Carter And Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

'Fairy tales are about money, marriage, and men. They are the maps and manuals that are passed down from mothers and grandmothers to help them survive”. Here, Marina Warner, a famous English novelist, illustrates the concept that traditional fairy-tales comprise of conspicuous stereotypical patterns in their portrayal of female and male. The ‘heroine’ is expected to be beautiful, compassionate and loving, though she is also presented as submissive, naïve and helpless with no ambition. However, if the antagonist is female, she is usually identified as ugly, cunning and morally dubious. For example, in ‘Cinderella’ the female characters are of two opposite extremes: the protagonist Cinderella listens to her mother, prays every day and obeys her stepmother and stepsisters who are the narrative’s antagonists. They are jealous of Cinderella’s beauty, and Cinderella’s gullible nature unknowingly ignores their evil intentions towards her. The actions of the stepmother and stepsisters in oppressing Cinderella is evidence of female collusion in their own oppression. Generally, ancient versions of fairy-tales have no sense of the presence of a biological or natural mother. The prince always seems to be right: Cinderella must be grateful for her prince as he saved her from her evil stepmother/sisters. In other words, he exerts dominance over her to present the patriarchal society that was, and that to an extent, we still live in today. Stereotypically, females are more emotional than rational which highlights the traditional idea that females are considered as a subordinate when compared to males. Cinderella reinforces a limiting set of female characteristics: Jill Nelmes, argues that women in literature are portrayed as “a carer, as a passive object, as an object of desire, that are always based in the home, that they are inferior to men and that they like men who are violent” and that “men tend to take on strong and active roles, while women are shown as passive and relying on their attractiveness”. Children are exposed to the belief that males control the world and they instigate relationships: the reason Cinderella had to be grateful was that she was accepted and approved wholeheartedly by a male. Female were depicted as being submissive in ancient tales, due to their relatively low social status at the time in history when such tales were written usually confined to domestic house chores. In contrast, male roles had consisted of going out into the public domain to generate economic resources to fund all familial expenses. Karen Rowe, an American literary critic in 1986 argues, “Fairy tales prescribe restrictive social roles for women and perpetuate ‘alluring fantasies’ of punishment and reward: passivity, beauty, and helplessness lead to marriage, conferring wealth and status, whereas self-aware, ‘aggressive’, and powerful women experience social censure and are either ostracized or killed”. Feminists believed females were beautiful and submissive in fairy-tales only because of their suppression and disempowerment under patriarchal rule. According to the creation myth of ‘Adam and Eve’, there is inequality between the two, with the narrative holding a pervading theme of patriarchy. Eve’s ‘original sin’ is ‘desire’ when she succumbs to the temptation of eating the apple, despite being informed not to. This act leads to their ‘destruction’ by being removed from Paradise and explicitly being made aware of their differences. Eve’s actions set a precedent for the subjugation of women because of their threat to patriarchal rule, and her collusion thereafter cements their expectations of women in place. Alternatively, it could be argued that Eve is lesser than Adam because she is only a part of him and not a whole, which highlights the inferiority of females alongside males. We should consider the following, however: if both females and males were made from the same material and Eve was even created using Adam’s rib, making them similar and connected, should they or should they not be considered as equal?

The texts I will be discussing within this debate are ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ by Angela Carter and ‘Carmilla’ by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The short stories I have chosen by Angela Carter are ‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ and ‘The Erl-King’. In Carter’s own words, “my intention was not to do 'versions' or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, 'adult' fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories”. All the texts I have chosen incorporate elements of Gothic literature. Angela Carter explores concerns and societal issues within her collection of short stories. She examines the relationship between sex and violence, a balance of power, objectification of female, socially constructed gender roles, and the limitations of marriage for females. Like Carter’s work reflecting the time period she was writing in, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu clearly draws upon contemporary issues of the Victorian era. The Victorian period had placed a strong emphasis on domestic morality, tackling the prominence of prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases, which led to a greater emphasis on female purity and chastity, making the female sexuality portrayed in Carmilla unusual. These texts from Angela Carter and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu each, in some way, present female as victims, gazed upon by the male eye and ravaged or drained of life. The theme of vampirism represents the female body using gothic horror fiction as a vehicle, creating a fascinating exaggeration of femininity being a liminal object, apparently between humanity and bestiality. The projection of horror is idealised around the ‘image’ of the female body and tells us something of the psyche of the patriarchy the texts were written in. In Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel ‘Carmilla’, two vampire protagonists demonstrate the feminine body in a way that would not be considered ‘normal’ at the time. Both texts are presented with the duality of sexual possibility. The Countess is ‘a girl who is both dead and maiden’, ‘and Carmilla is the ‘young lady, who appeared to be lifeless’. In this vein, another writer famous for his depiction of female, Edgar Allen Poe, declares that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’. Critic Elizabeth Bronfen opposed this view, questioning whether the ‘feminine is inextricably bound to cultural fantasies, so that only in death can women be real, autonomous, alterior?”

“The term Gothic fiction refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion”. As a genre that explores ‘dark desires and forbidden pleasure’, the concept of female independence and the cause of femininity allows for a crucial role in modern literature. Gothic literature first originated from the English author Horace Walpole in 1764 with his novel titled as ‘The Castle of Otranto’. This novel introduced a literary genre which then became extremely popular within the late 18th and early 19th century. Both, Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ share a sensually dark storyline where femininity is eternal, and an unstable conception by utilizing gender to symbolize classic gothic narratives. Angela Carter believes “characters and events are exaggerated beyond reality to become symbols, ideas and passions” all of which serve the sole purpose of creating an uneasy atmosphere in texts. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Angela Carter emphasizes the importance of symbolism by signifying images such as the ominous Gothic castle, the blood on the key, or the blood-red choker which was awarded to the heroine as a wedding gift. Traditionally within Gothic literature, these artefacts foreshadow and hint the fate of the characters to come next in the narrative. Gothic images/symbols are featured within narratives to emphasize the incredible amount of horror, which helps build terror within the atmosphere by creating suspense and unease for the audience whilst reading the narrative. Sometimes even switching specific gender tropes like Angela Carter does in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as in the end it is her blood, in the form of feminine energy, in other words, her heroic mother that saves her from her unpleasant fate. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, however, incorporates a more traditional male heroic figure named General Spielsdorf and other men who helped him vanquish Carmilla. Though the removal of Carmilla was awaited and bound to happen, it had affected Laura mentally, physically and emotionally. Despite her father’s efforts of taking her away to Italy to regain her delicate health, to recover her from the traumatic experience she went through; which she was never fully able to. Both authors chose different ways of presenting their ideas within their narratives this may be because of the different time periods both texts were written in. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ was written in the year 1872, whereas Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ was published in the year 1979. The time gap between both texts reflects the personal, societal and political contrast within views/opinions of these authors despite their difference in sex. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu allows the Father to take on both maternal and paternal roles fulfilling each desire of his one and only daughter Laura, who also helps her fight against Carmilla, in comparison to Angela Carter who demonstrates females fighting back against male oppression and unjust corruption. Both texts are similar in missing a vital family member such as in ‘Carmilla’ Laura’s Mother sadly passed away giving birth to Laura and in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ the Girl’s Father is not mentioned, so we cannot assume his existence. On the other hand, in ‘Carmilla’, Carmilla’s Mother begs Laura’s Father to allow Carmilla to stay with them at the castle, which he eventually does give into. Could you argue Laura’s Father felt pity for Carmilla’s Mother just because she was a female? The little acts of kindness from males towards females result in a reciprocal appreciation, which is in turn misinterpreted as an attempt by females to manipulate and control males. The male reaction is to reassert dominance by subjugating females, which demonstrates how females can unwittingly collude into their own enslavement. There are several reasons for how and why females connive to cause their own subjugation. The first one being that females are physically weaker than males.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu published Carmilla in order to address growing public concerns associated with female sexuality during the late Victorian era. In the late 1800s, there was a strong emphasis on domestic morality, as well as tackling prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases, all of which led to an increased emphasis on female purity and chastity. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s acknowledgement of the existence of female sexuality was a divergence from the traditional norms and values of gender roles in society. He believed that these norms prevented females from demonstrating any sort of sexual desire both physically and/or emotionally to other females. He writes about two significant female characters, Laura and Carmilla. Laura has always been ‘controlled’ by her father as her mother passed away when she was very young, whereas Carmilla has never needed to rely on a male presence and has found sexual and physical freedom by escaping capture from men who seek to destroy her, which empowers her both physically and mentally. It could be argued that whilst Laura is portrayed as a passive victim, Carmilla is the opposite of passive and can be considered as both active and assertive. One way females collude and connive to cause their own subjugation is through the idea that they are weaker than males. Weakness has two definitions: firstly, the lack of power to perform demanding tasks due to having little strength or energy, and secondly the idea of emotionally giving way under pressure, which results in one being mentally damaged. Laura is the most explicit physically weak character in the story, though Carmilla uses her frail, innocent appearance to deceive her victims with her energy which is of a “child” who is “of three years old”. For Carmilla, it is only death which is able to eventually subjugate her. In ‘Carmilla’, Laura is the protagonist who narrates her experiences with the vampire, Carmilla. Laura’s first ever encounter with Carmilla occurs when she was just six years of age, she comforted Laura so much that she fell asleep, however, woke up to a sharp stinging feeling of two needles, as if they were piercing her breasts. This traumatized Laura and the thoughts of fear remained with her and stayed with her for years after the event. Laura and her father both live a relatively luxurious lifestyle, where they don’t lack anything apart from companionship. This is reinforced through Laura’s narration of loneliness and her desire for a true friendship throughout the story. Sadly for Laura, friendship is something which money cannot buy her, which leaves Laura feeling unsatisfied with her life. Laura’s first experience with Carmilla happened in the absence of Laura’s father, perhaps because Carmilla was scared and was aware that male strength could destroy her. This story is significant within its portrayal of a female falling victim to another female as ‘normally’ a female would fall victim to a male figure. Though you could argue that both Laura and Bertha fell victim to their fathers leading to their subjugation. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu presents Laura as disappointed when she learns that the General Spielsdorf and his niece Bertha are not going to visit any time soon. This further emphasises Laura’s feelings of loneliness and isolation, reinforcing the idea that her father’s over-protectiveness towards her is not necessarily the best way of parenting. This highlights Laura’s vulnerability, dependency on others and how she is unaware of the harsh realities in the world as her father has always been there to conceal the edges. It could be argued that this leads to both father and daughter’s ultimate tragic downfall in the play when Laura ends narrating her story by reinforcing the long-term slow lasting impact Carmilla had on her life. Even though Laura’s father did everything within his control to heal his daughter, such as taking Laura to Italy for more than a year, nothing seemed to work, and recovery wasn’t really an option for her. This may have caused Laura’s father to feel guilty, to take the blame for whatever happened and may even start believing that his upbringing for Laura lacked as it clearly hasn’t been proven to be successful. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu empowers females by re-establishing male control in the exchange of females and causing them to collude and connive within their own conditions of enslavement. Laura’s father quotes Shakespeare when expressing his emotions, saying that “some great misfortune is hanging over us”. Perhaps the lack of a reliable emotional caregiver, in other words the mother, within both Laura and Bertha’s lives causes both of their father figures to take on dominant roles in their upbringing resulting in them inadvertently oppressing their daughters and teaching their daughters to ultimately become submissive and passive, which may be the way forward in life within their eyes.

Angela Carter’s stories are constantly exposed and challenged by conventional gender identities of traditional fairy tales. The repressive two-dimensional identities dictate that a female is expected to be vulnerable and submissive, whereas a male figure is expected to be strong and dominant. Angela Carter exposes the weaknesses of males, who you could argue tend to preach about dominance over equality within both female and males. However, female strength may not be so powerful after all. The narrator’s mother interestingly uses her “father’s service revolver”. The idea that although the male figure is not physically present, though he’s not as absent as you may think he is. The weapon that is used to kill the Marquis is explicitly referred to as a man’s possession. Though, the narrator does not make any effort to save her own life but is saved by her very mother’s hands. The narrator is presented as a very passive character; she is simply saved by her mother and is then able to live out her life in happiness. I believe the narrator is not a strong female character or, at least, she is not as strong as the reader may have hoped she was. Carter also highlights the contrasts between the narrator and her mother. The narrator states that “on her eighteenth birthday, my mother had disposed of a man-eating tiger”, as this is juxtaposed with “here I was, scarcely a penny richer, widowed at seventeen in the most dubious circumstances”. Although the narrator has been saved and is given a happy ending, her role in the climax of the story appears to be like that of a typically passive Gothic female character. She is also physically tarnished by the events of her past, noting that “no paint or powder can mask that red mark on my forehead”. Despite quite literally encountering this man-made monster, the narrator is still objectified even after the Marquis’s death; as if she is branded with his mark and as though she was never really a woman in her own right or place. 

09 March 2021
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